Science has a shady history when it comes to racial matters. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, science, particularly anthropology, was used to justify white domination, and the history books are chockfull of examples of scientists using scientific inquiry to “demonstrate” the superiority of Caucasians. In the United States, eugenics – the science that deals with the improvement of hereditary qualities of a race or breed – was popularized in the 1890s, and high school and college textbooks from the 1920s through the 1940s often had chapters touting the social progress to be made from applying eugenics toward undesirable racial populations.
Following the abuses of eugenics by the Nazi regime during World War II, the union of science with race caused many, within the scientific community and beyond, to shudder. Indeed, beginning in the 1950s, the general consensus among scientists was that the concept of race was nothing more than a social construct, with little if any basis in science. However, with advances in genetics, and the increasing accuracy of DNA testing, the pendulum has been swinging back, and many scientists are now willing to state with certainty that race does indeed have a biological basis.
Among the first to develop a human classification system was the French physician, traveler, and philosopher, François Bernier, who in 1684, anonymously published a seven page long pamphlet published that distinguished “four or five species or races”. In 1735, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician classified people, along with apes and sloths, as belonging to the order Antropomorpha, which consisted of four human varieties, each of which consisted of various physical and personality traits: Europeaeus was white, ruddy and muscular; Americanus, red, choleric and erect; Asiaticus, yellow, melancholic and inflexible, Africanus, black, phlegmatic, and indulgent. Yet the most enduring of all racial accounts was that of the German physician, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, often called the father of anthropology. In his 1775 work On the Varieties of Mankind, he divided humanity into five races – Europeans, Mongolians, Africans, Americans and Malays. Blumenbach coined the term “Caucasian” because he believed the women of the Caucasus Mountains to be the most beautiful, and he considered Caucasians to be the original race which degenerated because of climactic influences
In the 19th century, the scientific debate focused on whether human races represented an entirely different species. In the United States, discord around the issue of slavery pressed scientists to offer explanations for the causes of perceived white racial superiority. At the dawn of the Civil War, the so-called American School of Anthropology was born, at the core of which was the theory of polygenism, the belief that separate creations had resulted in a hierarchy of human races. The leading advocate of this type of mid-19th century race thinking was Samuel Morton, a physician and professor of anatomy at Pennsylvania Medical College, who concluded that the Caucasian had the largest cranial capacity, followed by the Mongolian, the Malay, the American, and lastly, the Ethiopian. He supplemented his physical measurements with a description of the mental and moral characteristics of each race; according to Morton, Caucasians had “the highest intellectual endowments”, Mongolians were “ingenious” and “imitative, Malays “active” and “predaceous”, Native Americans “slow in acquiring knowledge, restless, and revengeful,” and Ethiopians “joyous, flexible, and indolent. Morton’s work was highly recognized, and according to science historian Stephen Jay Gould, his findings “matched every good Yankee’s prejudice – whites on top, Indians in the middle, and blacks on the bottom; and, among whites, Teutons and Anglo-Saxons on top, Jews in the middle, and Hindus on the bottom.”
Racial theories in the 19th century were widely circulated in the popular press, accompanied by photographs and etchings. Lectures were a common form of delivery, but they were only part of the performance. Body parts were “dissected in hospital theaters; live specimens, skeletons, and preserved organs were displayed at fairs, museums, and zoos.” Racial scientists traveled with ethnological charts, human skulls and specimens, often as part of minstrel and freak shows, contributing to the representation of black and other nonwhites as “evolutionarily degenerate and inferior beings.”
The year 1859 marked a turning point in the history of scientific ideas of race, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, though his Descent of Man, published in 1871, was undeniably more impactful, and would ultimately doom polygenism to the archives of science. Darwin’s body of work established that races were not separate species and that there was a common ancestor for humanity, which suggested that races emerged through environmental adaptation and evolution. A confirmed abolitionist, Darwin believed that the gap in intelligence and moral sensibilities between civilized people and animals was great; yet, he also believed that the “less civilized races” fell in the middle.
It was Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, who first used the term “survival of the fittest,” and it was he who first applied Darwin’s tenets of evolution to human society and, ultimately, racist thinking. Spencer believed strongly that races and cultures could be ranked on a scale from inferior to superior, and he emerged as the principal spokesman for Social Darwinism, a social theory that had a profound impact on anthropology, psychology and the social sciences. According to its proponents, when government and charity organizations provided public education, public health, or a minimum wage, the impact was to contribute to the artificial preservation of the weak. This logic was used to explain and perpetuate societal inequalities, which Social Darwinists believed to be the natural order of society.
Although Spencer favored a laissez-faire approach, many of his followers in the United States preferred more active methods to ensure that the so-called lower races were kept down, thus marking the beginning in the early twentieth century of the eugenics movement, which in the words of its founder, Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, advocated “improving the race of a nation” by “increasing the productivity of its best stock.” Galton encouraged childbearing among the "fitter stock" of Western society, namely its wealthy Anglo-Saxon upper classes, and discouraged it among those considered "unfit," specifically those of the lower classes and non-whites. Early eugenicists aspired to preserve the “racial stock” as a means of “national salvation,” thereby sustaining the belief that the poor are held down by biological deficiency instead of environmental conditions. During the first three decades of the twentieth century, eugenicists harped on black and white differences as well as the deleterious influence of Southern and Eastern Europeans on American society.
Among the first to criticize the linkage of biology to race was W.E.B. Du Bois, who would later recall that he “had too often seen science made the slave of caste and race hate;” he argued that race was a concept not rooted in genetics, but rather, a social construct. Du Bois was of the conviction that racism was a “passionate, deep-seated heritage, and as such can be moved by neither argument nor fact. Only faith in humanity will lead the world to rise above its present color prejudice.” At about the same time, Franz Boas, often considered the father of American anthropology, pioneered the idea that classifying human beings by race was difficult, if not arbitrary. He wrote in 1928, “We have seen that from a purely biological point of view the concept of race unity breaks down.” By the late 1930s, a number of natural scientists were developing what was to be called the “modern synthesis” theory of evolution, which combined Darwinism with information gained from genetics, and stipulated that “population,” as opposed to physical type, was the proper unit of study for studying human differences.
With the end of World War II, the revelation of Nazi atrocities conducted in the name of racial purity combined with growing concern about the horrendous treatment of African Americans in the United States, instilling a sense of urgency to divorce science from any semblance of racism. Additionally, with the advent of the Cold War, Soviet accusations that the economic success of the United States depended upon the exploitation of colonized people, created the political need to reshape discussions of race. It was in this context that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a series of statements about race, signed by an impressive collection of the leading sociologists, psychologists, biologists and anthropologists, beginning in 1950, in an attempt to clarify what was scientifically known and to morally condemn racism. However, the significance of the UNESCO statements was more than a condemnation of racism. Its impact lay in the consensus of a wide array of respected scientists who denied the scientific basis of race, affirming its status as a mere social construct.
Still, in the 1960s, the voice of racism could hardly be quelled. In November 1965, U.S. News & World Report ran an interview with Stanford professor and Nobel Prize winning physicist William Shockley under the headline: "Is Quality of U.S. Population Declining?" In the interview, Shockley stated: “If you look at the median Negro IQ, it almost always turns out not to be as good as that of the median white IQ. At least, this is so in the U.S. How much of this is genetic in origin? How much is environmental? … Actually, what I worry about with whites and Negroes alike is this: Is there an imbalance in the reproduction of inferior and superior strains?”
In the social upheavals of the 1960s, a “great transformation” occurred in terms of racial awareness, in no small part due to the civil rights and black power movements. During that time, academics began to take a long hard look at their respective disciplines and call for changes in the way that they were addressing race. In the early 1970s, sociologist Joyce A. Ladner declared the “death of white sociology” and was critical of sociological research done in the name of objectivity and value-neutrality that conﬁrmed and perpetuated racist assumptions about African Americans.
A significant breakthrough occurred in the field of genetics, in 1972, when Richard Lewontin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, determined that the genetic variation within populations is significantly greater than the variation between populations. Specifically, after studying variation in seventeen genes, Lewontin found that only 6.3 percent of the variation could be attributed to racial membership; conversely, 85.4 percent of the variation occurred within local populations. In other words, Lewontin confirmed that there are more genetic difference between French and Vietnamese than between French and Germans, but both differences are dwarfed by the variation among the French alone. By the 1980s, there was generally a consensus, at least among intellectuals, that race was to be confined to the realm of culture, not biology. As Henry Louis Gates wrote in 1986, "Race, as a meaningful criterion within the biological sciences, has long been recognized to be a fiction. When we speak of ‘the white race,’ ‘the Jewish race’ or the ‘Aryan race,’ we speak in biological misnomers, and more generally, in metaphors."
Bolstered by sociologists, the idea that race was something intrinsic to one’s DNA was becoming to seem archaic at best, but more frequently, blatantly racist. However, there remained doggedness in the determination by some in the scientific community to impose a racial hierarchy on human beings that was preordained by biology. In October 1994, Richard Herrnstein, a psychologist, and Charles Murray, a political scientist, released The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which argued that low IQ, not racism, was responsible for the lower social status of minorities, particularly African Americans, and they urged scholars to avoid focusing on discrimination when discussing social problems. A remarkable success at the time, The Bell Curve debuted as number five on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list, where it spent 12 weeks; it spent 15 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
In 1990, The Human Genome Project (HGP) was launched, a 13-year-long, publicly funded project initiated with the objective of determining the DNA sequence of the entire spectrum of human genetic mapping. Optimistically, many scientists claimed that the project would provide deﬁnitive answers to questions regarding the scientiﬁc status of ‘race’ as a biological category. In June 2000, President Bill Clinton announced that the human genome had been successfully mapped. Clinton declared: “Today, we are learning the language in which God created life … I believe one of the great truths to emerge from this triumphant expedition inside the human genome is that in genetic terms, all human beings, regardless of race, are more than 99.9 percent the same.”
It seemed at the time that the HGP, bolstered by Clinton’s support, had put the final nail in the coffin of the idea that race had any scientific reality. However, subsequent advances in DNA sequencing and the increased speed of computer microprocessors has led to ever-increasingly more sophisticated analysis of human genes. Whereas until roughly the turn of the 21st century, geneticists were limited to examining one-dimensional distributions of a limited number of genes, today’s scientists can examine multi-dimensional correlations among distributions of genes. These advances have led to the popularization – once again – of the idea that race, and sometimes human behavior, are embedded within our genetic structure.
For instance, John Entine, author of the book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk about It uses genomic research to back his claim that people of African descent are genetically preconditioned to athletic events like long-distance running. According to Joseph Graves Jr, an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University “Evolution has shaped body types and in part athletic possibilities. Don’t expect an Eskimo to show up on an NBA court or a Watusi to win the world weightlifting championship. Differences don’t necessarily correlate with skin color, but rather with geography and climate. Endurance runners are more likely to come from East Africa.”
In recent years, the common use of DNA testing in medicine and forensics has been instrumental in putting a new face on genetics. For example, race is essential to help determine differences in treatment response or disease prevalence between racial/ethnic groups. According to author Kenan Malik, “[That] race has once more become important as a scientific category seems incontestable.” Malik points to the development of so-called race specific drugs, such as BiDil, a heart drug designed to be used only by African Americans, and the use of software programs to determine an individual’s race from the shape of the skull, which are now routinely used both by police forces and international organizations to identify bodies in places like marked graves.
As the pendulum in science has once again swung in the direction of acknowledging racial differences, we can only hope that, unlike so many prior periods of our history, change will reflect the better nature of our scientists, and not serve the baser elements of fear and self-interest